One of the similarities between cleaner production and industrial ecology is that both concepts have been dogged by definitional problems and even now admit of multiple interpretations.
Much of the early emphasis of the UNEP cleaner production program was on process technology. Under this interpretation of the term, cleaner production owed much to the earlier concept of pollution prevention (USOTA 1987; Hirschhorn and Oldenburg 1991). There remains a tendency for the UNEP cleaner production program to focus its efforts on process technology improvements rather than the more intractable problems associated with consumption patterns, or even product take back and recycling. The UNEP program's network of national cleaner production centers focus mainly on providing information on the potential for pollution prevention and waste minimization opportunities in small and medium-sized enterprises. Many of the articles published in the Journal of Cleaner Production cover the same sorts of topics. At the same time, as noted above, there is an agreement that these kinds of actions do not exhaust the remit of cleaner production, and far broader interpretations of the concept exist, as the previous section made clear.
Equally, industrial ecology is interpreted with varying degrees of breadth or specificity. Under some interpretations it is simply a way of focusing attention on the use or re-use of the wastes generated by one industrial process as material inputs to sister processes (for example, Lowe 1997). Under broader interpretations industrial ecology is nothing less than 'an integrated systems-perspective examination of industry and environment [which] conceptualizes the industrial system as a producer of both products and wastes and examines the relationships between producers, consumers, other entities and the natural world' (Sagar and Frosch 1997). Though couched in terms of 'examining the relationship', the often implicit goal of industrial ecology under this broader interpretation is to reduce the impact of the industrial system on the environment - or, more broadly still, to pursue sustainable development. Thus under the broader interpretations the concepts of cleaner production and industrial ecology tend to approach each other closely.
Differences are more obviously apparent under the narrower interpretations of the concept. In particular, as Oldenburg and Geiser (1997) point out, both the scope and the locus of actions are different in each case. While both cleaner production and industrial ecology focus on the concept of material efficiency, cleaner production (like pollution prevention) ascribes an equally important role to hazard reduction through substitution, suggesting the reduction or complete phase-out of use of certain priority toxics. Furthermore, cleaner production actions (in the narrower sense of pollution prevention) are assumed to be carried out more or less autonomously by and within individual firms. Industrial ecology, on the other hand, relies more heavily on the relationship between firms, and therefore requires cooperative networks of actors engaged at a different functional level than those in process-focused cleaner production activities.
Oldenburg and Geiser also argue that pollution prevention occupies a more specific role within a better defined regulatory structure than does industrial ecology. Clearly, there is an argument to suggest that this observation is truer of the USA, where the concept of pollution prevention is perhaps better enshrined in federal and state legislative initiatives than it has been in other countries. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that industrial ecology is not currently driven by regulatory initiatives. Rather it operates on the basis of industrial cooperation, driven mainly by the economic advantages of re-using waste resources.
In a sense each of these differences between the two concepts highlights potential drawbacks within the individual concepts. For example, it is clear that a single-minded focus on materials efficiency in the large could potentially overlook the priority hazards associated with the use of particularly toxic materials. Thus industrial ecology can learn from cleaner production the importance of the substitution pathway. On the other hand, it is clear that relying entirely on autonomous pollution prevention strategies within individual firms is unlikely to lead to material efficiency, or indeed dematerialization, at the wide system or macroeconomic level. Thus cleaner production can learn from industrial ecology, as Pauli (1997) points out, the importance of cooperative relationships between individual firms in the drive for sustainable development.
When it comes to comparing and contrasting the broader interpretations, it is far harder to distinguish between cleaner production and industrial ecology. Each claims to provide an operational strategy for achieving sustainable development, and tends to expand its own definition to include whatever might be necessary to achieve these ends. There is a sense therefore in which cleaner production and industrial ecology can be regarded as rivals for the same intellectual territory. Which of the two concepts is ultimately successful in occupying that territory is probably less important than that the lessons from developing and operationalizing the individual concepts be directed towards what appears to be the common end of both.
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